Lily of the ballads
A family legacy becomes a personal story
NNSL (Dec 21/98) - From the time she was a baby, Moira Cameron heard the strains of ancient and legendary ballads. Her father, Stewart Cameron, well-known far and wide for his storytelling and ballad-singing gifts, sang them around the house. Before even learning how to talk she could sing.
According to Cameron, who with husband Steve Goff and friends Dawn and Steve Lacey, make up the local singing troupe Ceilidh (pronounced cay-lee) Friends, many ballads and the stories they tell are hundreds of years old.
"You can't date some of these things," says the Yellowknife resident of eight years. "Most have hundreds of versions, almost all different."
Her first ever performance is a story in itself.
"When I was about three years old they (her parents) took me to this club in Toronto and in between sets they'd have a break when people would get drinks. And apparently, so I'm told, I got up on stage, grabbed a microphone and started singing this ancient Scottish ballad that was about 25 verses long. A tragic ballad where everyone was killed in the end and everything," explains Cameron.
"And apparently I sang it with a lisp because I didn't quite know how to talk. Somebody actually has a tape recording of this, I'm told, because I've heard this story told by several different people. I had apparently learned it by osmosis. And that was basically my debut."
The club Cameron mentions was Fiddler's Green, a popular folk club in Toronto that has since closed its doors.
According to Cameron, she was around that kind of performing all of her life so it was quite natural for her.
"I didn't have any stage fright," she adds, saying that she actually doesn't remember that moment on stage.
And so Cameron's life begins in legend. Then when she was in Grade 4 she asked to do a guest set at Fiddler's Green:
"It was a planned thing, though, not stealing the stage," she laughs.
A guest set was supposed to be 15 minutes long and Cameron didn't have 15 minutes worth of material.
"I learned an American ballad named Pretty Polly and that really was the only song that I had learned. With my father I also knew the words to another song which I could sing when he was singing. I knew all the words when he was singing it. So he did a song and I did a duet with him and then I did Pretty Polly."
Then the family moved to Sudbury, where there wasn't as much of a folk scene.
"We basically had to create a folk scene," recalls Cameron.
"I started singing with my parents in a troupe called Mum's the Word. It was a mummers' troupe," explains Cameron.
"Actually, the Friends of Fiddlers Green in Toronto used to do mummers' plays. I've actually got a photo here of me terribly enjoying myself. I just absolutely loved watching them."
Cameron says that what mummers do is dress up in funny costumes, mostly with ribbons.
"That's traditionally how you dress as mummers. And you'd play these mummers plays at certain times of year -- usually around the solstices. And they were very symbolic kinds of plays involving reincarnation and things like that."
"There's one done around Easter, for example. There's a fight between two men and one man is killed, then this doctor comes -- this quack doctor comes -- with a magic cure and he brings the person back to life."
According to Cameron, these plays are not a dead tradition, but still done in Newfoundland.
"So we did these mummers plays in Sudbury," Cameron says.
In high school Cameron began singing apart from the family, with a school friend, Laurie.
"We sang the traditional ballads in two-part harmonies, a cappella," says Cameron.
They and other friends appropriated a stairwell in the school and became known as the "Stairwell Gang".
"We were a whole bunch of dejected people who didn't fit into any other clique, who would come and recite poetry or tell stories or play music or sing songs."
"It was quite against the rules because you weren't supposed to have lunch anywhere outside the cafeteria. We managed to get away with it because we weren't doing anything -- you know -- that bad," Cameron recalls.
This is when a bit a stage fright set in.
"I started getting nervous about being on stage," she admits adding that now, in her adult years, it's more an undercurrent of excitement that sets in. It is the edge that gives her performance a spark, which she considers is really necessary.
Cameron and Laurie were hired to perform at the Sudbury Folk Festival. It was her first paying gig. And it was a big deal to her.
"The CBC in Sudbury at the time was taping some of the performances. We did quite well for the fact that we were an unheard-of group."
When the two young women graduated from high school, they went their separate ways.
Next came university in Peterborough, to study English and History.
"But I didn't complete it (degree) because my father became ill with cancer at that time. He was ill for one whole year -- then in the end when he died I was just so burnt out. Steve, my husband, was living here. I just wanted to get away. I wanted to come here -- it was time to bridge the gap."
Cameron says the time of her father's death was very traumatic in a lot of ways.
"It was hard because he had such a reputation in Ontario, as a storyteller and as a ballad singer. He was very much loved by the folk community. And people had this idea that the Cameron family performers were this great, wonderful thing."
"We had a lot of family problems -- just like any other family -- but we sort of got put on this pedestal. There's a lot of hype around that. It's a real selling point I guess. But behind the scenes... there's practice. You're never away from each other. It's very demanding. It's hard to breathe. And I hated it, to be honest, performing in a family. I hated it."
When her father Stewart died, Cameron left her family and Ontario behind her and headed for Yellowknife.
"When an artist dies he's catapulted into sainthood. It was very hard for me to be around that. I was always Stu Cameron's daughter. I still am," says Cameron softly.
And, in fact, anyone in the know in the world of storytelling and ballad singing speak of Stewart Cameron's unsurpassed abilities.
"My father was so great as a ballad singer, he really was," emphasizes Cameron, who's music is undoubtedly influenced by her father.
"He was stunning. There's not many people who know how to sing ballads," she adds.
But it was time to get away from her father's ghost-shadow.
"I wanted to do my own music. Now I don't mind it so much (the references to being Stu Cameron's daughter). I can use that, but before, when I was starting, I felt I wanted to make a name independent of that."
Cameron has recently released her second solo recording. Ceilidh Friends also has two recording under their belts. The CD, entitled Lilies Among the Bushes, has received excellent reviews in well-established folk music magazines, Canadian Folk Music Bulletin, Sing Out! Magazine and the Appleseed Quarterly.
"I never would have made an album if I hadn't moved up here," says Cameron.
The stories that the old ballads tell, Cameron aintains, appeal to her superstitious nature. Indeed, the songs are filled with murder, betrayal, seduction and all sorts of tragedy.
And Cameron sings about women who show great strength and endurance:
"I have to feel like I can relate to it. You have to be able to sing the magic that's in the story without feeling like a hypocrite," she says. "Though it's often the tune that grabs me first."
But the singer emphasizes that it's not the tune that's important but the story you tell with your voice.
There's no doubt that Moira Cameron, who works for Frontec Services during the day, is making a name for herself in the world of ballad singing. And it is her very own name, though it may hold echoes of her father.